2012’s best

The RN&R arts editor picks his favorite new albums of 2012

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This is the one article I work on all year. I maintain a Google document where I list, rank and compile every new album I hear every year, constantly reordering as certain albums grow on my ears and others fall from grace. I read a lot of record reviews and talk to a lot of fellow music nerds to get recommendations and try to check out every record I can get my ears on. There are, of course, some critically acclaimed records that are conspicuously absent from my list, so it’s important to note that this roundup reflects my own personal taste. And I tend to skew toward stuff that rocks, stuff with well-crafted songs, and stuff that’s a little strange. So just consider this some new music suggestions from weird Uncle Brad.

The runners-up:

20. Neil Young: Psychedelic Pill

19. Neurosis: Honor in Decay

18. Heartless Bastards: Arrow

17. Jack White: Blunderbuss

16. Beach House: Bloom

15. Schoolboy Q: Habits & Contradictions

14. Godspeed You! Black Emperor: ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

13. Bob Dylan: Tempest

12. Spiritualized: Sweet Heart Sweet Light

11. Liars: Wixiw

10. Guided by Voices: Class Clown Spots a UFO

Guided by Voices released three albums this year. (And frontman Robert Pollard also put out a couple of solo records. Dude writes songs like most people eat breakfast.) Each of those three full-lengths had at least 19 songs, for a grand total of 61 GBV songs in 2012. If you were to take the best 18 or 20 of those songs and compile a single-disc playlist, it would be a serious contender for the No. 1 spot on this list. But that kind of judicious editing is not the GBV way. The perfect pop tunes are always mixed in among the drunken Who impressions, weird prog experiments and half-formed acoustic song sketches. Class Clown Spots a UFO is probably the best and most consistent of the band’s releases this year, though all three are worth hearing. It’s also noteworthy that the current incarnation of GBV is a reconstituted version of the band’s mid-’90s lineup responsible for classic albums like Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes.

9. Alabama Shakes: Boys & Girls

This unusual soul record sounds earthy, rootsy and old-school without any of the rarefied museum air of straight revivalism. This record doesn’t sound like a meticulous recreation of Southern soul from the ’60s—the guitars have a bit too much indie rock jangle, and the song structures are a little too twisted for that—but it scratches some of the same itches one might want scratched when listening to Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett. But it’s revival without any groveling reverence—this music sounds alive, dirty and contemporary. A lot of that has to do with vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Brittany Howard, who conjures up that soul dynamism in a way that feels personal and natural.

8. El-P: Cancer for Cure

Rapper-producer El-P has been a mainstay in New York alternative hip-hop since the ’90s, when he was a member of the group Company Flow. Cancer for Cure is his fourth, and arguably best, solo album. The music is hard-edged and futuristic, as is El-P’s quick, aggressive rapping, though it’s more impressive for his linguistic dexterity than lyrical content. The record has some bitchin’ guest spots, including an awesome verse from the incomparable Danny Brown, and some back-and-forth with El-P’s close associate Despot and the Atlanta rapper Killer Mike, whose great 2012 album, R.A.P. Music, El-P also produced.

7. Ty Segall Band: Slaughterhouse

Like GBV, San Francisco rocker Ty Segall put out three albums in 2012. (That was apparently some kind of thing this year. Green Day also put out three records.) Slaughterhouse, a romping, stomping psychedelic garage rock album, complete with a Bo Diddley cover, is my favorite. It totally rocks and is surprisingly catchy—except for the last track, which is 10 minutes of go-nowhere guitar feedback. But the great thing about iTunes is that you can delete the one shitty song and then you have a nearly perfect album.

6. Cloud Nothings: Attack on Memory

This record is almost instantly recognizable as having been recorded by Steve Albini, the Chicago engineer—he dislikes the term

“producer”— behind such classic albums as Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me, and Nirvana’s In Utero. And this record has the spacious, edgy sound of those albums. But it also has an incredible batch of songs, as catchy and youthful as the best pop punk—I don’t think anyone in this band is of legal drinking age—but without strict adherence to any snotty genre conventions.

5. Pallbearer: Sorrow and Extinction

Two of my favorite music experiences of the year: Driving over Donner Pass in a snowstorm while listening to this record pinned to 11, and driving up from Vegas through the long desert stretches of US-95 while listing to this record pinned to 11. But no matter where I was or what or what I was doing while listening to this Arkansas doom metal band, it would seem incredibly fucking epic.

4. The Walkmen: Heaven

This is the album I listened to more than any other in 2012. The Walkmen have been going strong for more than a decade, consistently putting out good-to-great records every year or two. This is one of their best, and certainly their most mature. Good records usually come from doubt and pain, or anger and anxiety. There are very few great albums about being contented, happy and comfortable. But that’s what this is—an album about the mild joys of domestic bliss, stable relationships and young children. But that’s part of what makes it such a comfortable record, and so rewarding to repeated listens. It’s like a favorite sweater—warm and fuzzy.

3. The Men: Open Your Heart

What’s great about about this record is how much ground it covers in the context of a relatively short, totally cohesive record. There are so many superb moments representing different styles of guitar rock. Lead-off track “Turn it Around” sounds like a sloppy garage rock version of the Foo Fighters from an alternate universe. Then the middle of the record gets sort of dreamy and introspective; “Please Don’t Go Away” sounds like a prime cut of My Bloody Valentine. The country ballad “Candy” almost sounds like a Rolling Stones B-side. But despite the diverse stylistic nods and blatant homages, it all comes together perfectly. And the fact that it’s so diverse means that with every listen, depending on the listener’s mood, a new song stands to the forefront.

2. Grizzly Bear: Shields

The first time or two through this record, it seems almost boring. There’s no perfect single like “Two Weeks” from the band’s masterful 2009 record Veckatimest. At first listen, there are no such obvious hooks on Shields, but after a few listens it manages to reel you in anyway. Here, the magic is in the ornate, almost rococo details—the unexpected placements of drums, emerging string sections, guitar parts that take surprising turns. And after a few more listens, those details seem to have an almost mathematical logic that supports a beautifully crafted batch of songs.

1. Swans: The Seer

The opener of this two-hour-plus magnum opus, “Lunacy” features Swans frontman Michael Gira chanting the title word in close harmony with Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of Low, before the songs turns elegiac, and the singers intone “childhood is over.” This album starts by embracing insanity and ending childhood. From there, it keeps digging deeper and deeper, incorporating relentless repetition, complex dissonance, and inspired chaos. It’s physically and spiritually exhilarating and exhausting. The title track stretches on, deliriously and entrancing, for more than a half hour. (It’s been a big year for long songs. Even old-guard artists like Bob Dylan and Neil Young put out songs that went well past the 10-minute mark.) No other 2012 record is as challenging or rewarding, or feels as much like an accomplishment.